Much of the research at Vanderbilt is a team activity. Usually a research group will have a leader, in most cases a faculty member, who guides the research question and lays the foundation for inquiry for the group as a whole. These teams usually, but not always, comprise a combination of faculty members, post-doctoral students, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Just because a student is an undergraduate does not mean that his or her contributions are minimized. In fact, the opposite is true! A lot of the research activities at Vanderbilt would be severely hindered without the contributions of undergraduate students. Students who work as part of a research group have the opportunity to learn first hand how research is conducted within a discipline. Students also gain access to individuals more established in the field, such as older undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral students, all of whom can add a richness and insight to the workings of a particular field. Most research assistants are paid through the funding of a faculty member, but some research assistants do volunteer their time.
Curricular Experiences and Independent Projects
Many research experiences fall under the purview of curricular experiences. For example, many of the majors in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) offer research experiences within the curriculum. In some majors, laboratory courses are a required part of the curriculum. These classes are a great opportunity for students to experience what laboratory work in a discipline is like and to get a sense if research in that field may be of interest. Students who enjoy a particular lab as a curricular experience can use that experience as a foundation for a more thorough or independent exploration of a topic. In addition to required curricular research experiences, many majors offer senior thesis and honors thesis options which involve independent research projects.
Creative activities also play a central role in the curricula of many majors and fields of study. For example, the Blair School of Music has numerous ensembles comprised of students who perform all over the world. Student can create exhibitions for galleries as part of the curricula from the Department of Art. Students can perform through the Department of Theatre. Students can explore their interests in creative writing. All of these activities fall under the scope of research at Vanderbilt, and all of these opportunities are readily available and celebrated.
Students who have shown a commitment to a field, usually through prior academic achievement, research, or performance, regularly conduct independent projects. Many majors have an ‘honors’ component which requires independent research. For an independent research project, the student designs the research question or experience that is to be carried out, conducts the research, and presents the experience in the form of a paper, presentation, or performance. Some departments have funds set aside for students to conduct independent projects.
Students who are working on projects that are particularly time consuming or advanced may conduct research over the summer, when the stresses and commitments of academics and extracurriculars are lighter. Though some students can conduct an entire research project in one summer, many students use summer research as an opportunity to continue research from the prior academic year or to begin a project that will continue into the next school year. The two main summer experiences at Vanderbilt are the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Summer Research Program and the Vanderbilt School of Engineering Summer Program. In these programs, students are provided stipends for living expenses and generally work on research for ten weeks at a time, working full time at forty hours per week. In addition to these programs, other summer research opportunities are plentiful. Many students apply for opportunities at other universities or other types organizations to conduct summer research. For more information about these opportunities, contact the Office of Honor Scholarships.